Teachers union election battle heating up

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The Chicago Teachers Union election isn’t until May 21, but the campaign’s opening salvos were fired this week, and the election may turn into a contest over who has opposed district officials the most.

Incumbent president Marilyn Stewart held a press conference this week to hail a binding arbitration that could force the Chicago Public Schools to pay thousands of dollars in back pay to hundreds of teachers who were forced out of their schools. The Chicago Teachers Union election isn’t until May 21, but the campaign’s opening salvos were fired this week.

On Thursday, incumbent president Marilyn Stewart held a press conference to hail a binding arbitration that could force the Chicago Public Schools to pay thousands of dollars in back pay to hundreds of teachers who were forced out of their schools. At issue was their right to claim vacant positions. 

The legal victory is politically significant because it involves teachers who were displaced under Renaissance 2010 school closings and turnarounds, as well as those squeezed out by falling enrollment or changes in academic programs. Stewart’s opponents have campaigned in part on what they see as her weak response to Ren10, the district’s – and mayor’s – primary reform initiative.

On Monday, Deborah Lynch, a former CTU president seeking a return, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn a CPS edict forbidding the distribution of union campaign material on school property. CPS countered that the ban was an effort to preserve the district’s neutrality in the CTU election and in response to “numerous complaints” about political e-mails sent to teachers’ CPS accounts.

But Lynch contends that it violates the right to free speech. “When management interferes with an election, it benefits the incumbent,” she says.

Displaced teachers

The rights of displaced teachers in CPS have been an issue since the Chicago School Reform Act was adopted in 1988. That act loosened the hold of seniority in filling teacher vacancies. In negotiations over the current teacher contract, the CTU won a provision requiring the district to give these teachers first crack at any positions that are open after Oct. 1 of the school year.

In the meantime, they serve as substitute teachers. In exchange for working four days a week as subs, they are able to maintain their previous salaries and benefits for 10 months before their pay decreases to that of a regular substitute.

CPS is supposed to match teachers to open positions, as long as they have the proper certification, and give them a two-month trial period to prove themselves to their principals.

In a grievance filed a year ago, the CTU charged that the district refused to fill open positions until after they had been left open for two months, leaving displaced teachers without jobs and forcing students to languish under substitute teachers.

In response, CPS officials said that “aging” the vacancies helped the district cope with the rapid changes in staffing needs that occur at the start of the year, and “allow(ed) principals the opportunity to fill positions with individuals of their own choosing.”

District officials also argued that they had been using the procedure since a 2006 memorandum of understanding on the issue of displaced teachers, and that – although it was not in the language – CTU officials knew about the practice all along.

The case of Antoinette Barnes

Antoinette Barnes, who taught at Chicago Military Academy – Bronzeville until her position was closed in spring 2008, was named in the grievance.

She says she was unable to find a job during her time in the reassigned teacher pool, despite sending out hundreds of applications. She expected that, as a last resort, the district would appoint her to a vacancy.

“I did not know how long it would take, I just expected that they would do the right thing,” Barnes says. “I expected that this was just a normal procedure.”

But months went by without word from the district, even though she saw positions in her subject area being advertised. She approached the CTU about filing a grievance in March, and she was terminated from the reassigned pool in June 2009.

Peter Myers, the arbitrator in the case, ordered the district to stop the practice of aging vacancies. In addition, he ordered CTU officials and the district to review all records from the 2008-09 school year, identify teachers who “suffered any actual harm” from the process, and come up with remedies.

It isn’t clear how many teachers will be affected, or how much money they will get from the district. One of Stewart’s opponents said teachers could recoup as much as $30,000.

Jackson Potter, running for vice president on the slate of the group CORE, for Caucus of Rank and File Educators, maintains that the arbitration ruling is too little, too late. “The union has created this problem by not being more aggressive in combating the district’s attempts to create a more flexible workforce,” Potter says.

Although happy with the outcome of the arbitration, Antoinette Barnes isn’t planning to vote for Stewart. She says it took the union too long to catch on to the problem of position aging, and she feels the union hasn’t advocated strongly enough on behalf of displaced teachers.

Her vote, she says, will go to the Coalition for a Strong and Democratic Union slate, led by Linda Porter. The caucus was launched by Ted Dallas, who was elected with Stewart but then had a falling out. “They are for job protection,” says Barnes. “I believe they are the only ones who can run the union effectively. If we won tomorrow and had to negotiate a contract, they could hit the ground running.”

Election materials flap

Meanwhile, Lynch contends that the board’s own filings in her lawsuit support her contention that their ban on campaigning is politically motivated.

E-mails CPS filed as exhibits show that in advance of an internal referendum the union held in November, Stewart asked CPS to shut down First Class e-mail because “some [union] members and former members are abusing the system with political garbage.”

As far back as fall 2007, then-CTU vice president Ted Dallas and current recording secretary Mary McGuire complained about messages sent by Potter, Lynch and other teachers. After Dallas launched his opposition caucus, McGuire complained about e-mails that he sent.

Lynch says that a dozen of her caucus’s campaign events have been canceled because of the board’s ban, issued March 12.

 

Potter says his group has had to cancel about 20 events. Just this morning, Potter was kicked out of a parking lot at Sawyer Elementary for distributing campaign material.

In a season of layoffs, budget cuts, proposed class size increases, and teacher pension cuts that now seem certain to become law, this year’s union election may turn into a contest over who has opposed district officials the most.